All through the ages children have been exploited. Children are easy prey – they are innocent, feeble and trustworthy. Charles Dickens portrays children in a vivid and descriptive manner of hardship and death in Dickensian times. Dickens felt strongly that industrial life in the cities was creating unfair class divisions which would lead in the end to violence. Other novels such as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby, ( the novels I shall be exploring ) in particular show how keenly Dicken’s felt the wrongs done by adults to children. In the 1840’s and 50’s there was a fashion for looking at everything as if it was part of one logical system, where children were seen as imperfect adults and childhood itself a process called “upbringing or schooling.”
Behind this attitude lay a philosophy called utilitarianism – which stresses the practical usefulness of things. This meant that art and imagination, play and entertainment were not valued because they had no practical use. Dickens feared that all those things which made human beings diverse and interesting, free and creative, happy and warm – hearted, were being driven out by the values of a factory system geared to only productivity and profit. This leads me to the first novel I shall explore as the basis of how Dicken’s portrays the difficult lives of children in 19th Century England – Nicholas Nickelby.
I chose this novel as it shows how the abuse of children extended into the school system. The Principal of the school to which Nicholas attended was a man called Mr. Squeers. I believe that Mr. Squeers managed the school on the principle and philosophy that cost must be avoided. We see this with the condition of the school, ” bare windows, dirty rooms, long old rickety desks, inked and damaged in every possible way.” Dickens really comes into his own when he describes the condition of the children with such passion and graphic detail – ” Pale, haggard, lank, bony, facial expressions of old men, deformities, stunted, meagre, stooping bodies, bleary-eyed, hare-lipped and every ugliness or distortion from their horrible endurance of cruelty.”
Mr. Squeers was teaching the children on what he called the “practical mode of teaching,” This means when a boy has learnt how to spell “clean and winder,” ( Mr. Squeers spelling of window), the boy goes and cleans the window! This is clearly exploiting children and as they are too weak or powerless they cannot object. Also, we see by Squeers ability to spell that children are receiving a bad education from this man. Dickens makes known, in no uncertain terms, his feelings on the matter of children and how the school system that Mr. Squeers runs is exploiting and cheating the children through Nicholas Nickelby’s final paragraph. It uses such emotive language that you can clearly empathise with children.
” …Led him ( Nicholas ) to be the aider and abettor of a system which filled him with honest disgust and indignation, he loathed himself and felt for the moment as though the mere consciousness of his present situation must, through all time come, prevent his raising his head in Society again.” The second novel I shall deal with is probably one of Dickens’ most famous novels, Oliver Twist. It is the tale of a young boy who is left in a workhouse as an orphan, without a friend in the world. He quickly finds himself in the middle of the seedy underworld of crime in London.
The main ways in which children are exploited in this novel are by their being uneducated and innocent as Oliver has no idea of the outside world. The workhouse is where Oliver encounters Mr. Bumble, a cruel and evil task master who forces the children to work. Before this, Oliver was brought up unhappily in a foster home, run by a woman who cares more for the money she gets than for the children she looks after. When aged nine he was sent to live in the poorhouse. Dickens shows us how officials like Mr. Bumble had no feelings for children but only love for the power that they brought them.
I think when Mr. Bumble goes and collects Oliver to bring him to the poorhouse, he says, ” Will you go along with me, Oliver?” Oliver replies, ” Will she go with me ?” indicating to the woman who looked after him. He was hoping she would not as he disliked her and he wanted to go to the workhouse, unknowing what this entailed. Dickens yet again shows his true cynical feelings on exploitation of the poor and helpless by using great descriptions to show how underfed the boys were. ” The bowls never wanted washing, as the boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again. They looked at the copper with such eager eyes as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed.” This gives us a good idea of how children were treated.
The novel gives us no real indication of how hard Oliver worked or what his work involved except when it said, ” So, you’ll begin to pick oakum tomorrow morning at six o’clock.” Apart from being an early start, from investigation I found out that ” pick oakum” meant pull old rope apart for recycling – a dirty, laborious job given usually to convicts. Oliver runs away to London and is befriended by The Artful Dodger, who sees Oliver’s naivety and brings him to a villainous old man named Fagin. ” I know a ‘spectable old gentleman as lives in London, wot’ll give you lodgings for nothink, and never ask for the change.”
Oliver is yet again taken advantage of as he has never met this kind of friendship where someone such as the Dodger and Fagin are friends with Oliver because they can use him to further their own gains. Oliver is oblivious to the fact that what Fagin and his gang are doing is wrong. He is laughed at but doesn’t see it, like when he makes innocent comments about wanting to learn the trade of making hankerchiefs.